The governing Liberals have allowed lobbyists to attend party fundraisers featuring federal cabinet ministers, at times violating restrictions the party announced two years ago, according to a Globe and Mail analysis.
The review of Liberal fundraisers organized since the new rules took effect in early 2017 found nearly half had registered lobbyists in attendance. The research also found that of the more than 200 instances of registered lobbyists at Liberal fundraisers, more than three-quarters of them were registered at the time to lobby the cabinet minister speaking at the event.
The results of the review show that while the Liberal Party in late 2016 unveiled broad restrictions on the attendance of lobbyists at party fundraisers, the reality is that the party is applying its ban narrowly – and that even those narrow restrictions have been violated.
The biggest exception is the party’s decision not to apply its restrictions on attendance by lobbyists if the fundraiser is a “Laurier Club” donor-appreciation event.
Essentially, the Liberal Party is banning lobbyists from attending fundraisers featuring the target of their lobbying when the entry fee is relatively low – such as a $200-a-plate dinner – while allowing them to regularly attend Laurier Club events if they donate the $1,500 a year required for entry into the exclusive club of top donors.
The Liberal Party responded that when lobbyists do attend fundraisers, they must sign a declaration that states that they are attending in their “personal capacity only” and that they agree to attend “without lobbying any public office holders in attendance and to comply with my responsibilities under the Lobbying Act at all times.”
Liberal Party spokesperson Marjolaine Provost acknowledged that there were a few cases in which lobbyists attended a fundraiser in contravention of the party’s own rules.
“Any instances of this are appropriately reviewed and, in most cases, the party has elected to refund the relevant donations from those individuals,” she said in an e-mail.
Liberal fundraising events range from large garden parties with hundreds of people to smaller-scale evenings at high-end restaurants where lobbyists can mingle with the Liberal Party’s top power brokers.
Reacting to criticism two years ago that the Liberals were playing host to intimate fundraisers that gave top donors special access to cabinet ministers through what became known as “cash for access” events, the party announced a major overhaul of its fundraising rules. Those changes included advance public notice of fundraisers, full disclosure of attendance lists and specific rules related to lobbyists.
The “cash for access” events were criticized because they were small gatherings featuring the Prime Minister or a cabinet minister that often required a $1,500 entry fee and were not widely publicized.
A late 2016 directive from the party’s national director said that prior to a fundraising “event,” the party would review the guest list to prevent any lobbyists from attending if they are registered to lobby the department associated with the featured cabinet minister.
The directive made no mention of exceptions. However, the party would later make clear that those rules would not apply for the Liberals’ donor-appreciation events, which are a common form of fundraiser.
The Laurier Club’s required donation level is just shy of the $1,575 maximum allowable political contribution. The party says its prohibition on lobbyists only applies to fundraisers with a specific entry fee, and only if the lobbyist is registered to lobby the guest speaker.
One small event last September provides an example of how the party interprets its policy of when lobbyists can or cannot attend a fundraiser. The dinner with 32 people in attendance at Ottawa’s Beckta restaurant featured Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. It required donations of between $200 and $250. Several senior Liberal political aides were there, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts.
Also in the mix were three lobbyists, including Scott Bradley, a former Ottawa Centre Liberal candidate who is registered to lobby on behalf of Huawei Canada, a Chinese tech giant that some former Canadian spy agency officials have labelled a threat to national security. Mr. Bradley was not registered to lobby Ms. McKenna’s department.
Lobbyist Francis Schiller, another former Liberal candidate, also attended. He was not registered to lobby Environment Canada that September, but had been registered to lobby Ms. McKenna’s department earlier in the year on behalf of an aerospace firm, and registered again two months later to lobby the minister’s department on behalf of an Arctic shipping company.
The third lobbyist was Susan Smith, who was registered to lobby Environment Canada at the time of the fundraiser on behalf of three separate clients: TransCanada Corp., Egg Farmers of Canada and the Yukon government. When reached for comment, Ms. Smith said her attendance was a last-minute decision and that she viewed it as a fundraiser for her local Ottawa MP. She said the party told her after the fact that it would not accept her donation for the event because of the party’s policy on lobbyists.
The party has previously acknowledged that it continues to allow lobbyists at fundraisers if the gathering is described as a donor-appreciation event, but the scope of the practice has not been documented until now.
The Globe’s research analyzed the Liberal Party’s fundraising records and the Commissioner of Lobbying’s federal database of registered lobbyists.
The review focused on the 72 fundraisers that have been posted to date by the Liberal Party since April, 2017. The disclosures are limited to fundraisers with an entry fee of $200 or more. Details of smaller fundraisers are not disclosed, but the party said there have been more than 100 “grassroots” events over the same period.
The Globe’s research found that more than 130 individual lobbyists have attended at least one of the 72 Liberal Party fundraisers. Several lobbyists attended more than one event.
The list of 130 includes John Delacourt, who attended a large Ottawa fundraiser in June featuring the Prime Minister. Mr. Delacourt is registered to lobby the PMO on behalf of The Globe and Mail as the government considers potential policy changes that could affect the Canadian news industry.
Of the 72 fundraisers, 32 were Laurier Club events, meaning 44 per cent of those fundraisers were exempt from the Liberal Party’s restrictions on the attendance of lobbyists. About 60 per cent of Laurier Club events had at least one lobbyist in attendance.
The research also found nearly a dozen cases that appear to violate the Liberal Party’s rules. Those events listed the attendance of lobbyists who were registered to lobby the guest speaker, even though it was not a donor-appreciation event.
Working with such a large database of names can produce situations in which a donor has the same name as a lobbyist but is not a lobbyist. The Globe made efforts to address such instances, but it is possible some isolated cases are not accounted for in the data.
The Globe confirmed some situations in which money was returned after the fact by the Liberal Party and other cases in which the lobbyist involved said no concerns were raised by the party.
Ms. Provost, the Liberal Party spokesperson, said breaches of the party’s own rules are “incredibly rare” instances out of more than 9,000 attendees at political fundraisers. She also said these cases tend to involve individuals who registered at the last minute after the Liberal Party had done an advance check of the lobbyist database.
The Liberal Party also points out that it is the only party that discloses the attendance lists of its fundraisers and screens its lists to prevent the attendance of lobbyists who are registered to lobby the guest speaker, with the exception of donor-appreciation events.
That will change in December when new political-fundraising legislation passed earlier this year takes effect. The Liberal government’s Bill C-50 will require all parties to publicly disclose details related to fundraising events in which a donation to the party of more than $200 is required to attend.
The legislation includes an exception for donor-appreciation events if they are held in connection to a party convention. The legislation makes no specific mention of lobbyists.
Alex Marland, a political-science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s who studies political parties, said the presence of lobbyists at special fundraising events that are restricted to top donors raises a number of questions.
“It is difficult to fathom that a lobbyist would attend an exclusive party event in a personal capacity only,” he said.
He also noted that since union and corporate donations are currently banned, political parties should consider whether lobbyists should also be prevented from making political donations or attending party events.